sex workers rights

Big Bad Rent Boys, Sad Little Call Girls, and the Language of Sex Work

Photo: Getty Images

Sex-industry activists have a parlor game: Every time a story about the horrors befalling female prostitutes appears alongside an illustration of a woman’s bare back or a stock photo of high heels against a neon backdrop, there’s a virtual fist-bump. Here they go again — mainstream media offering visual titillation with a side of moral rebuke.

Contrast that with the typical image accompanying major media coverage about last week’s Department of Homeland Security raid on the Manhattan office of long-standing male-escort site Rentboy: a bunch of nondescript dudes in NYPD windbreakers (and one cool-looking chick in aviator shades) standing watch while other nondescript dudes in Department of Homeland Security polo shirts haul cardboard file boxes out of a nondescript New York City building.

A cursory comparison of mainstream press articles about female prostitution and male prostitution reveals not only a striking “image gap,” but a difference in language and argument about the issue of decriminalizing sex work that is just as remarkable.

The New York Times served up a prime example of the incongruence in two editorials that ran, interestingly, on the very same day. In the first, a statement by the august Editorial Board, the Rentboy raid was presented, dispassionately, as an attack on civil liberties enabled by the illegality of prostitution. The Times board advanced the notion that the men using the site — on both the buying and selling side — were rational actors who were victimized only by hectoring law enforcement. The solution, clearly, was the decriminalization of sex work. The self-awareness and motivation of the escorts who advertised on the site was never called into question. “Gay men in the United States turn to sex work for a variety of reasons,” the piece reads. “Sex work can mean the difference between sleeping on a bed and sleeping on the street. For others, it is a way to afford a degree.” Leaving aside the faulty assumption that all men who professionally service other men are gay, a question emerges. Why can’t the issues concerning female providers be presented so pragmatically?

Contrast that with the op-ed by Rachel Moran, a former prostitute, whose piece was illustrated by a drawing of the back view of a woman stripping out of a dress made entirely of what looks like receipts. Her editorial, which is bracketed by her own experience as a teenager who turned to prostitution under extreme duress, is an attack on the recently proposed Amnesty International policy drafted to protect the rights of sex workers worldwide. The policy asks for “the full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work” — which, Amnesty pointed out in multiple statements, does not include trafficked individuals or children.

In Moran’s view, the decriminalization of prostitution, which is painted as tantamount to endorsement, is not the solution. She instead favors what is called the “Nordic model,” which, ostensibly, prosecutes the clients, but not the prostitutes. While Moran goes to considerable lengths to describe the tawdry atmosphere around legal sex-work establishments, what’s missing here is the stories of sex workers who have seen the Nordic model twisted, time and time again, into yet another way for law enforcement to harass and intimidate them. (This is not to belittle Moran’s life experience and her feelings about it. She is writing from a post-traumatic space and deserves respect for it.)

The two editorials, respectively, fall along lines of gendered doublespeak that remain consistent in mainstream media: Decriminalization would liberate male sex workers, who are presumed to have complete sexual autonomy, while it would all but enslave females, who are presumed to have none.

When asked about the stark difference in the way prostitution is presented based on gender, “the simplest explanation is usually the best,” says Dick Slaughter (not his real name) of the #Hook Up Collective, a coalition of Rentboy advertisers, lawyers, and community members. “The Times prefers to cast men in the sex trades as Midnight Cowboys with agency over our lives, while women are pimped-out, drug-addicted slaves who need to be ‘rescued’ (read: handcuffed) by police, and those of us who are trans or gender nonconforming aren’t given a thought.”

This line of thinking seeps over into social media as well. One second-wave feminist author started a laudatory Facebook thread about the Moran op-ed, which was eagerly joined by peers advancing the popular argument that consent — and, by implication, true awareness — on the part of female prostitutes is impossible. That would make their contribution to the discourse and research that lead to supporting decriminalizing sex work somehow tainted, by “false consciousness,” or, oddly, privilege. Oh, those fancy-pants happy hooker poseurs and their delusions!

But the deeply researched Amnesty proposition was endorsed by multiple human-rights organizations, and the broad sex-worker support for it is not “majesty of the sacred whore” grandstanding or some such 1990s sex-positive Paglian retread. This is activism where the rubber meets the road, from members of a workforce no longer willing to remain silent about interference and aggression from law enforcement, violence at the hands of customers, and a cultural atmosphere that all but supports the belief that sex workers somehow deserve whatever misfortune may visit them. One struggles to think of another subject about which such patronizing — nay, gas-lighting — language would be acceptable from one woman speaking about the experience and perspective of another.

A well-read sex worker knows that male prostitutes are rarely, if ever, written about, or spoken of, with such condescension. Dominick, a former escort who, for three years, wrote the popular Ask Dominick advice blog for Rentboy, says, “The disparity boils down to sexism.” The “Pipe down, you poor, prostituted women, and let the real feminists tell you what’s what” tack is, he says, “trite heroic fantasy couched in paternalism.”

Much of the anti-decriminalization writing in both mainstream and social media erroneously decries the Amnesty vote as “pro-prostitution,” and some paint a scenario of its implementation as a never-ending pimps-and-penises nightmare, like a Hieronymus Bosch hellscape strewn with shadowy figures and used condoms. Far more troubling, however, is the tacit racism in pieces like Moran’s, which claims that the sex workers who defend their endeavor are “primarily white, middle-class, Western women.” This phrase effectively erases not just male sex workers, but also the substantial global network of women of color organizing around sex-worker issues from a non-abolitionist standpoint.

While the graphic realities of prostitution should not be downplayed or masked over, relying on distortion or the gross-out factor to make a case against it is counterproductive. It only serves to muddy the waters by inciting public disdain and further alienating the women and men it purports to assist. Can we, without exaggeration, dramatic moralizing, or Super Stud mythologizing, support people working as prostitutes effectively enough to ensure their safety and well-being while they’re in the industry, and also when they want or need to move on? Can we get real about the fact that, worldwide, one of the greatest threats to prostitutes — regardless of gender identification or sexual orientation — is law enforcement?

In “Two Ways of Writing About Sex Work,” Mallory Ortberg at the Toast raises a glass to journalists who can be objective in their writing about the adult business, while raising an eyebrow at the sensationalist, judge-y tone of others. Meanwhile, journalists like Melissa Gira Grant are working hard to get it right, bringing deep-dive reporting and refreshing expertise to their work. Grant’s recent piece about Rentboy in Vice is a must-read, as is her piece for The Nation about the vote to move forward on the Amnesty proposal.

Such careful coverage is necessary, says activist Slaughter. “Every day there are more street-level prostitution busts in New York City than the seven arrests made by the Department of Homeland Security, yet we don’t hear the same outrage over the daily questioning, harassment, and arrest of people carrying condoms, ‘Bawdy House’ evictions from our apartments, or raids on brothels, massage parlors, and gay sex venues that we use to increase our safety. We view the raid on Rentboy in the larger context of criminalization of people who trade sex, in which vagrancy, loitering, prostitution, and promoting laws are used to target people of color, especially trans women and gender-nonconforming people of color. The prosecution of Rentboy is just the latest, and by no means the greatest, assault.”

The legal hits, we can safely predict, will keep coming. As Dominick says, “There has always been sex work, and there will always be sex work.” In future reporting on this incendiary topic, will there always be such a pronounced difference in the way male and female sex workers are depicted?

We’ll know in time. For now, though, to hear the media tell it, the gender-binary breakdown is perfectly clear: His and hers are radically different. What’s bitter sauce for the goose is but gravy for the gander.

Big Bad Rent Boys and Sad Little Call Girls